Groups tout youth grants

As the Jim Joseph Foundation, a San Francisco-based foundation that focuses on Jewish education, wraps up three major grants in the Los Angeles area, its beneficiaries are touting their programs’ successes as models for Jewish funding.

One such grant, the High School Affordability Initiative, was created to make Jewish high school education accessible to middle-income families who would otherwise be ineligible for tuition assistance. Another grant allowed the Hillel at UCLA to reach out to unaffiliated Jewish students and offer informal learning opportunities, while the foundation’s third grant, the JWest Campership program, has helped send thousands of L.A.-area kids to Jewish summer camp.

“We can look back now and say that the JWest incentive program has been a game-changer for the field,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Camp enrollment in the Western Region camps is up 19 percent, versus a national enrollment growth of 9 percent.”

The $11.15 million initiative, which launched in 2008 and will conclude after this summer, has brought more than 3,300 first-time campers to Jewish sleep-away camps in the Western Region — 1,570 of whom hail from the greater Los Angeles area. Designed as an incentive program, the initiative offered up to $2,500 over two to three summers for families sending their kids to Jewish summer camps for the first time. 

In addition to increasing the rolls of first-time campers, the initiative has also kept them coming back. Some 60 percent of first-time campers returned the following summer, thanks to camper retention grants, Fingerman said. While grants for first-time campers are no longer available, some returning campers are still eligible to receive up to $500 toward their third summer. 

Another aspect of the grant’s success, Fingerman said, has been the convening of West Coast Jewish camp summits. As a result of the summits, “Camps started working together, marketing together and viewing each other as colleagues, not as competitors,” he said. 

While the JWest Campership initiative is winding down, The Jewish Federation’s One Happy Camper Program, which ran concurrently with JWest, will continue. One Happy Camper offers $1,250 grants for first-time campers who attend a summer session of three weeks or more. Grantees attending a two-week summer session are eligible for $750.

On the education front, the High School Affordability Initiative, which was funded to the tune of $12 million, has helped hundreds of middle-income families send their kids to five L.A.-area Jewish high schools: YULA Boys High School, YULA Girls High School, Milken Community High School, New Community Jewish High School and Shalhevet High School. 

The initiative has also helped the high schools build endowments, so that middle-income families can continue to receive tuition assistance, even after the six-year Jim Joseph Foundation grant runs out in 2014. 

Miriam Prum Hess, director of donor and community relations and director of the Center for Excellence in Day School Education at BJE-Builders of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, the agency responsible for overseeing and implementing the initiative, said that the move toward building endowments represents a sea change in the culture of Jewish day schools.

“When I started at BJE eight years ago and went around speaking at the day schools, I could count on one hand the schools that had any endowment,” Prum Hess said. “We really had to change the culture, and what the Jim Joseph grant did was give us the huge carrot to begin enacting that change within the five high schools.”

As part of the grant’s stipulations, the community had to raise $21.5 million in endowment funds and earmark the proceeds for middle-income tuition assistance for six years beyond the grant. The five high schools are responsible for raising a combined $17 million in endowment funds. The remaining $4.25 million has already come from the Simha and Sara Lainer Day School Endowment Fund, a joint effort of BJE and Federation.

“To date, each of the five schools has reached its yearly benchmarks,” said Chip Edelsberg, executive director of Jim Joseph. “The upshot of this is that they’re well on their way to creating what we believe is one model that speaks to the affordability challenge.” 

So successful has been the initiative that New Community Jewish High School recently met its six-year goal of $4 million in three years. 

At the university level, Jim Joseph aimed to make Jewish life more engaging through its Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative. That effort, which launched in 2008 and was extended from 2013 until 2014, is part of a larger initiative at 10 campus Hillels across the United States, for which Hillel at UCLA was the prototype. 

The $10.7 million grant, some $750,000 of which was awarded to UCLA’s Hillel, allows for a senior Jewish educator to work alongside the Hillel director. The senior Jewish educator engages students in informal Jewish learning and works directly with a team of campus engagement interns, who reach out to their peers to give them meaningful Jewish experiences. 

“Unless you reach college students where they are, they are not necessarily going to seek out experiences to address their Jewish identity,” said Rabbi Aaron Lerner, this year’s senior Jewish educator at UCLA’s Hillel.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the long-time director of UCLA’s Hillel, said that on Yom Kippur, dozens of students attended a discussion that Lerner led concurrently with the religious service. Seidler-Feller, who described himself as a more formal Jewish teacher, lauded the less traditional approach that the Jim Joseph grant has funded.

“It’s a more relaxed form of reaching people,” Seidler-Feller said. “This is informal education at its best.”